Voices in the wilderness

Christmas is being hijacked. It’s a fact; we hear about it so often on the telly and radio and read about it in the papers all the time at this point in the year, so it must be true. Schools won’t let children say Merry Christmas, councils refuse to hang tinsel for fear of offending others and you can’t even call it Christmas these days, they want you to call it Winterval.

All of this would be horrendous and an affront to our faith, to Christ and even to our traditions if it weren’t for one small thing; none of it is remotely true.

A Facebook post from a local lady recently bemoaned the fact that the school her granddaughter went to was telling children to say Happy Holidays rather than Merry Christmas and had banned any mention of Christmas, but it was simply untrue and even the teachers at the school have no idea where the suggestion came from.

Croydon council asked their one stop shops not to hang tinsel around their counter areas several years ago, not to avoid offence, but to avoid contact with lighting and electrical equipment in the same area.

In 1998 Birmingham Council, in order to bring Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah, Halloween, Bonfire Night and other winter time festivals under one long banner marketed them all under the title Winterval. This has Christmas at its very heart and featured a Christmas parade and a large Nativity scene in the city centre. The word Christmas was everywhere. It happened the following year and then stopped.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, it’s because I think Christmas actually is being secularised and commercialised, just not in the ways you would read about in your papers or hear about on your radio. And I think that how we react to it isn’t just important, but it could see us miss the most fantastic opportunity to share the Gospel.

The temptation is always there to get upset and angry about how the celebration of the birth of Christ is being treated by others, especially when we hear stories like the ones above. They often get neatly packaged under headlines screaming about the War on Christmas, and just that language, that mention of war, makes us feel like we are in a battle over how Christmas should be celebrated. It can force us into a mentality of us – good, God fearing Christians – against them – the politically correct militant atheists. But there’s a massive problem when we do this; for a start it alienates us from the very people we should be trying to bring to Christ. If we see other people whose views on Jesus differ wildly to ours as some kind of enemy then how on earth are we meant to live up to his commands to make all people disciples, or to love others as we love ourselves? We live in divided times, especially politically, the last thing we need is for the Church to add to that spirit of division and conflict by arguing over language or tinsel.

But, worse than that, when we talk of some unknowable “they” who won’t let us wish anyone Merry Christmas or force us to celebrate Winterval, we are giving in to falsehoods and lies. Jesus proclaimed that he is the way, the truth and the life. If we deny the truth part of it so easily because it pushes our buttons then how on earth are we meant to follow his way or share in his abundant life? We are called to be a people of truth; if we find ourselves throwing lies about, even when we believe them to be true and are only trying to defend our faith, then any accusation of hypocrisy which gets levelled at Christians becomes justified.

However, with all that said, there is no doubt that Christmas has lost its meaning to so many; to the extent that it’s almost a cliché to say it. Shops put their displays up before we’ve even had Halloween and spend literally millions of pounds on their festive adverts, people spend so much on presents for so many different people that credit card debt soars at this time of year, there’s even a huge amount of publicity surrounding which song will sell the most copies and make it to the Christmas number one spot.

It’s all a long way from celebrating the birth of God incarnate in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. So, how do we react? If we don’t just fight back in a bid to reclaim Christmas and its message from those who have stolen it for personal gain, if we don’t complain loudly about it and shame people into action, what do we do?

Well, oddly, some of the problems I’ve mentioned actually give us the best opportunities we get all year to share Jesus with others. If you go into any shop right now you may come across Andy Williams telling you that this is the most wonderful time of the year, or Johnny Mathis singing of a ray of hope in the sky, or Wizzard wishing it was Christmas every day. These songs are ubiquitous and everyone accepts their lyrics as true; this really is the most wonderful time of the year, people really do see that hope and wish it was Christmas every day.

But why?

What makes Christmas so wonderful? What is it that makes people look forward to it with such glee?

It can’t be the tinsel, or the queues at the shops, or the dent in the bank account, or the endless supply of turkey, or getting another pair of socks, or filling your blue bin with wrapping paper, or the Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas special (it definitely isn’t that) or contending with hundreds of drunk folk at work Christmas parties.

So, if it isn’t all the stuff that people think of when they think about Christmas, what is it that makes this time of year so magical and hope filled for people?

To answer that, we need a voice in the wilderness shouting,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord ’s coming! Clear the road for him! The valleys will be filled, and the mountains and hills made level. The curves will be straightened, and the rough places made smooth. And then all people will see the salvation sent from God.’

You see, that joy and hope people feel at Christmas is because of the reason we celebrate it in the first place. It has its roots in that manger in Bethlehem. We are told to rejoice, that it’s a season of goodwill, and we accept it and feel it, but the reason it is those things is because of the one who came down to earth.

It was John the Baptist who fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah when he prepared the way for Jesus at the start of his ministry. He went into the wilderness and told people of the one who was to come, of the one who would reconcile us to the Father, who would show us the way, the truth and the life and who would lay down his life for us.

But now we find ourselves in another wilderness. It’s one where division, greed, loneliness and worry have taken hold. It’s one where people are hungry and thirsty for a real life, not the false image of life we have projected all around us. It’s a wilderness, not of sand and heat and endless dryness, but of despair and a longing for hope.

We need a voice in that wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord.

But we have that voice. We are that voice.

We have a message, not of anger that there is a fictional war on Christmas, but of the hope that came on that first Christmas. It’s not a false hope, promising us riches, or fame, or fulfilment in material objects. Rather, it is a real hope that has already been fulfilled and is waiting to be grasped. It was lived out in the ministry, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a real hope that we can be reconciled to the one who created us and to each other. It is a real hope that goodness and love have already defeated the powers of sin and death. It is a real hope that Christmas is not all about presents and shopping and telly and food; it is about the fact that God, the one who made the heavens and the earth, loved us so much that he became a baby, who grew into a man, who would change everything just to bring us closer to him.

We need to tell of that hope, to share that love, to be that voice crying in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord ’s coming! Clear the road for him! The valleys will be filled, and the mountains and hills made level. The curves will be straightened, and the rough places made smooth. And then all people will see the salvation sent from God.’

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